Lucky Family First to Get a Chevy Volt and a Nissan LEAF

By · January 28, 2011

Kramer pic

So far we haven't found anyone in California or anywhere else with BOTH new mass-produced plug-in cars. Since my wife Rochelle Lefkowitz and I both work from home, we're not that typical. Still, as early adopters, it's a privilege to be an ecumenical plug-in household.

Which car is better? The real competition is the electric mile versus the fossil-fuel mile. But we enjoy competition among plug-in design solutions and carmaker races -- so here are our initial impressions and our first match-ups. In the spirit of encouraging wide discussion, we're posting this message broadly. See links at for the latest.

Since we got our Volt on Dec. 22 and our Leaf Jan. 24, I've felt like we've taken a time machine to the future. Since as the Founder of I've been doing little else but talk and evangelize about this for a decade, I thought I'd be ready for this moment. But now that it's really here, it's far better than I ever imagined!

Each car is like a 21st century space capsule, gliding silently through streets clogged with last-century vehicles. I was never so aware of the unique and ugly sounds from each gas-guzzler. At stop lights I even feel their low-frequency vibrations. As a driver of a Prius since 2004, which 60,000 miles ago in 2006 was converted to a plug-in hybrid, and as an occasional driver of a RAV4 EV or a Tesla Roadster, I've had glimpses of how this feels. But it's completely different to drive this way almost all the time!

Each car greets the driver with fun as its first feature. The instant torque of electric motors turns each of them into rocketships at low speeds, and easy lane-changers on the highway.

The driver's seat of the Volt feels like an airplane cockpit. It's a little intimidating at first, but reassuring after a few minutes of studying the controls and displays -- or just ignoring some for a while. The Leaf has a spare quality, and the simpler right-side panel is all about audio and climate.

Each car offers subtle clues about its fundamental character. The Volt puts a whole car between the front left electric door and the rear right gasoline door. Inside, the button to flip open the electric door stands out while I have to work to reach the gas-door release, giving the message, "You're not going to be using this very often." The Leaf's charging ports are under a giant door right in the center of the car's nose: "There's nothing going on in here but electricity."

Both cars have slipped up some on what's called "computer-human interface." We wish they'd listened to suggestions to put prototypes in the hands of Silicon Valley's usability experts last summer. For instance, the charging signals. Plug in the Volt and the indicator turns yellow (connected), then steady green (charging). Finally it flashes green (done). That's exactly the reverse of a user's expectations. The Leaf, with a longer charge time, starts out well, with three indicators that illuminate in succession as the car reaches its charge. But 15 minutes after it's full, all the blue lights go off. My first morning, when I greeted the plugged-in car, I wondered, "what happened?" Both MyLink and MyLeaf, the phone apps that enable me to monitor and control charging and many other activities, need major overhauls and quicker refresh. (Since the Nissan app doesn't make Leaf all-caps, I've got permission to stop doing so….)

Each car's manual is full of important information -- far more than I got even in the superb orientations from Novato Chevy's Terry McCarter and North Bay Nissan's Victor Maldonado. But each is daunting, and, unsurprisingly, written defensively and sometimes in legalese. I downloaded them from and . Alas, for a spare copy, pages designed to fit in a glove compartment don't print well on letter-sized paper. And while the Volt's Index listings are live links; the Leaf's aren't, though once I got inside its chapters I could click to navigate. Nissan and GM may be watching Hyundai, which turned its Equus manual into a downloadable App -- and included an IPad with the car.

We all know both cars will get better soon. All carmakers will learn from each other. (The savvy ones aren't relying on their customer service operations, but have budgeted for large teams to track down and analyze the tens of thousands of comments and suggestions strewn around online.) The automakers can quickly update some software features. One reason we leased the Volt instead of buying it is our expectation for future hardware improvements in Version 2. The Volt's big challenge is making the car a five-seater. Tomorrow, Nissan could promise to supply every Leaf with rear headrests that lower to the level of the top of the back seats. That will vastly improve the half-blocked rear window visibility. (We remove them and replace them when we have rear passengers.)

Rochelle's first comment was, "Hey, I love these cars!" (She and our son Josh, both shown at the "Plug-Ins Arrive" page, have been stalwart supporters.) She wishes both carmakers had personalized the mirrors so she doesn't have to reset them every time she gets in after I've driven it. Otherwise, she's happy to just be able to get into each vehicle, push the on-button and drive it like any other car. She says it was a bigger adjustment to switch from a 1997 Camry to a 2007 Camry Hybrid than from that car to the Volt. She appreciates the rear cameras, especially important now that most safety-conscious cars come with thick side pillars.

Finally, the hard numbers. Our Leaf experience began with a fair test with an EPA-assigned 73-mile range: from the dealer in Petaluma to Redwood City. Driving at 65 MPH the whole way and not bothering to detour around the steep hill in San Francisco between the Golden Gate Bridge and US 101 (which cost about 4 miles of range), we finished a 74-mile trip comfortably with 14 miles to spare. The Leaf is reassuringly predictable: with 80-100 miles of juice, most of the time, we don't think about range; we just drive around and charge it at night. With 163 miles in four days, it may become our first-to-use car, with the Volt reserved for times we both drive and for distances.

The Volt is a more dramatic story. In 37 days, we've driven 2,281.0 miles and used 33.4 gallons. Does an average of 68.1 MPG sound disappointing? Not to us -- because it includes two round-trips to Lake Tahoe. Until now, no one could drive a plug-in car that route without refueling along the way: 225 miles including 8,000 feet of Sierra elevations. (Read about that record-setting first trip and see photos at .)

Kramer pic

Here are details on the two Tahoe expeditions: First: 225.7 miles, 6.31 gallons at 35.8 MPG up, and 221.5 miles, 4.36 gallons at 50.8 MPG down. Second: 244.0 miles, 6.37 gallons at 38.1 MPG up, and 242.9 miles, 4.56 gallons at 53.2MPG down. (The second time we more than confirmed the numbers. We don't know why we got better results even on a longer route with an additional passenger and more cargo.)

We started each of the four drives with a full battery (boosting our average), then had major uphill drives (reducing MPG). The combined 43.2MPG is about what a second- or third-generation Prius gets on that route. (We expect the Gen2 Volt will improve its long-distance "charge-depleted" driving performance, which wasn't the top priority in GM's four-year push to meet the Volt's promised delivery date.) This proves a PHEV's best selling point: this one car can drive all-electric most of the time at its base location, then go any distance worry-free with good fuel economy, and again drive entirely electrically at its destination.

We've reached a sweet moment. Since 2005, CalCars has been trumpeting that plug-in hybrids (and extended range electric vehicles) get100+ MPG of gasoline (plus a penny a mile of electricity). GM didn't squawk when the Volt sticker said its MPG when using gasoline and electricity would range from 69-168 MPG for 30-75 mile trips. Now our real-world Volt experience confirms both our experience with conversions and our predictions for production vehicles. Many of our Bay Area trips in the Volt have exceeded the car's typical 35-40 mile all-electric range -- and we've used our portable charging connector at a destination only once. When we subtract out the two long trips, our local 1,346.9 miles on 11.8 gallons were at 114.1 MPG. (And CalCars colleague Ron Gremban driving his Volt Lynne McAllister showed 205 MPG after their first 468 miles, mostly in Marin County.) As they say, QED -- point proven!

Stay tuned for more specifics and comparisons in the future.


· · 7 years ago

That was a fascinating report. Thanks for posting it!

· · 7 years ago

Thanks for the great report. I certainly appreciate the visibility that Cal Cars has lent to plug-in hybrids over the years.

However, I am not a fan of the "over 100 mpg" claims that have been associated with some plug-in hybrids. (Nor am I a fan of the 367 MPGe originally anounced for the LEAF, or the 230 MPG announced for the Volt). All these figures (unlike the EPA figures of 93 MPGe on electricity and 37 mpg on gas for the Volt) are entirely arbitrary. I have had runs during which I can claim 4000 mpg in my plug-in hybrid. However, I would never make such a claim, because doing so would be wildly misleading: it describes the driving profile, not the vehicle. MPG (as shown on window stickers) has been accepted as a measure of car efficiency, not driving style. It is an important measure of resource consumption. Used correctly, a Prius can be seen to be an efficient vehicle. Used correctly, MPG shows that the Volt is less efficient when running on gas than the Prius is. This disclosure is important because it will cause consumers to push Chevy to improve the Volt's engine efficiency.

The current EPA figures are important for electric vehicles as well. It keeps manufacturers honest, and allows concerned consumers to buy more efficient vehicles. With power plants generating 21.3% of greenhouse gases worldwide vs 14% for transportation, it is important not to squander electricity.

A Volt can get 4000 mpg when measured this way too: If you go for a 40 mile drive and the engine starts up just before you pull into your driveway, you could have used 1/100 gallon: 4000 mpg.

For BEVs, we need only know the range and the number of kilowatt hours per hundred miles. For PHEVs, we need to know the range, the number of kilowatt hours per hundred miles, and the fuel MPG in charge-sustaining mode.

As your experience shows, rating the *car* as "over 100 mpg" is meaningless, because it is not the *car* being rated... it is the driving profile. Ron Gremban's car gets 205 mpg and yours gets 68. Clearly something is wrong. The cars are identical. The driving is different.

· · 7 years ago

An excellent first-hand introduction! Thank you very much for posting!

· James Hea (not verified) · 7 years ago


Great review. Loved hearing about the day-to-day experience contrasted with the long distance driving. While Ken makes a good point about the driving profile, the EPA has a difficult task to create comparable numbers. Nevertheless, it must've fun for you to crest the 100 mpg mark on your driving. Certainly in terms of annual consumption you should see a significant drop in your consumption of fossil fuels.

What's cool about the Plug-in model is that you could conceivably install a solar charging station to reduce your on-grid electric consumption as well, making your base station fairly self-sufficient.

Great post.


· Andy Frank (not verified) · 7 years ago

Well All:

My Volt has gone 1200 miles and used 9 gallons of gasoline from it's birthday to now. i use it vigorously as I usually do but I plug it in at every opportunity. So I have displaced
the gasoline used by my conventional car. The conventional car (a Nissan Hybrid) at 30 mpg would use 40 gallons for 1200 miles so 40-9 is 31 gallons of gasoline displaced.

It is all about displacing gasoline without disrupting our lifestyle!! My annual consumption of gasoline last year was about 400 gallons so this year I expect to use about 40 gallons or I expect to displace 360 gallons of gasoline a year without disrupting my lifestyle!

· Tim (not verified) · 7 years ago

Thank you for the informative post. The chevy volt sounds like a very nice car but based on my experience with a 2003 civic hybrid the costs to maintain it don't seem to outweigh the savings in gas. The battery, electric motor, gas engine, special parts like spark plugs (8 for a 4 cylinder) and all the other moving parts costs more to maintain than if I just bought a straight civic and paid for gas and maintenance on the gas engine.

The Leaf it seems would save more money since there are less moving parts to maintain. But my question is how well do the batteries maintain their charge? For example if I drive 40 miles to work and let it sit all day in cold weather will the battery drain enough that I don't have enough charge to make it back home. Also if I tow the car will that charge the batteries? Thanks again for your informative post.

· · 7 years ago

I think that from the earlier posts ( on the Nissan Leaf that you shouldn't expect to use a Leaf to commute if you have an 80 mile round trip unless you have charging facilities at work. The highly publicized 100 mile range is under pretty benign conditions.
IMHO, all of these stories of 100+ miles being driven aren't doing EVs any good. This includes Nissan's advertising of that number to a degree but it especially applies to my fellow EV advocates, including Nick's hokey trip to the Jack Daniels factory where he took the slowest highway to get there and then claimed he had driven the speed limit ( At real highway driving, don't expect to go 100 miles on a charge unless you expect to carefully drive all the time. If you run into something unexpected, you'd better have a backup plan or you're going to be using your AAA card for a lot of tows.

· · 7 years ago

No you couldn't expect to get 80 mile range from the LEAF on a cold day: the EPA tests show 73 miles as being average range, and in cold weather, with the heater running, you should not expect even 73 miles. Nissan's estimates put the range as low as 47 miles in cold weather and very slow traffic -- but it would be almost impossible to get such low range: their modeled test speed was on the order of 6 mph, suggesting an 8 hour commute... far from realistic. If 40 miles one way is your actual commute, then you'd want to charge at work, or you might be happier with the Volt, or perhaps with a BYD... or a Tesla, if you have loads of money.

Your question about towing is an interesting one. The possibility certainly exists to place a car in regen mode, and tow it to charge the batteries. No one implements this, for many reasons: liability if the tow goes astray, wear and tear, very low efficiency, the low probability of anyone selecting this as a charging method, the additional engineering and testing to develop a fool-proof, reliable system, etc.

On the other hand, charging trailers (a generator on a trailer) have been used to charge electric cars while being driven. (The combination becomes sort of a two piece plug-in hybrid.)

· theflew (not verified) · 7 years ago


I agree the Volt has more moving parts, but how often do you change your spark plugs? Remember the purpose of the Volt's ICE is to generate electricity first. It will not run anywhere near the time the ICE does in the Civic. And if it does you probably brought the wrong car. Per the Volt's owners manual (free to download) there is no service interval for the coolant. And there is only 1 belt for a water pump which has no service interval and the oil can last years.

I think if used as designed the Volt is a good car. Each person needs to look at their driving habits and budget to see what fits. The Leaf would work for me Monday thru Friday but I would have to use another car on the weekend. The Prius is nice but it will always use gas in it's current form until the PHEV Prius comes out, but it's more utilitarian than the Volt.

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